Yellow…Is It Me You’re Looking For: A Primary of Yellow’s Place in History

From jaundice to journalism, from brick roads to bellies, yellow is one of the oldest and most enigmatic colors in our spectrum.

The actual roots of the word yellow are debatable among literary scholars. Some believe it was derived from the Indo-European “Ghal” (a combination of “gold” and “yell,” meaning both bright and gleaming as well as to cry out), while others speculate it came from the Anglo-Saxon’s Old English word “Geolu” or “Geolwe.”

But despite its ancestry, most agree the first mention was in describing the shield carved from Yew wood in the epic poem Beowulf.

Dating back more than 17,000 years ago and collected from ochre and orpiment pigments, yellow was one of the first colors used in the artwork of Egyptian tombs. To them, yellow represented gold, which they believed is what comprised the skin and bones of their gods.
At one time, yellow was the color most closely associated with the Pope—which ironically was also the color in religious imagery used to identify heretics and traitors such as Judas Iscariot. Despite that paradox, yellow and white (depicting the gold and silver keys to heaven) continue to symbolize Easter, and remain the official dress colors of the pontiff.

In ancient China, yellow signified glory and happiness and was so highly regarded that only those in the emperor’s household could use it for clothing and décor.

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, a large contingency of Democrats (who were still resentful of Republicans from the Civil War and Reconstruction and took a hardcore voting position against them) became known as Yellow Dog Democrats (as in “I’d vote fer a yeller dawg before a Republican.”) My, how things have changed. And, remained the same.

Overall, yellow is psychologically the happiest color in the spectrum, representing not only nature’s best and brightest (e.g. autumn leaves, corn, canaries, daffodils and lemons), but the more nobler aspirations of human nature (e.g. amusement, gentleness, humor, spontaneity, vivacity, optimism and warmth—describing both our sun and our disposition).

Alas, as with most colors, there are opposing exceptions, as yellow is also strongly associated with duplicity, deceit, envy, jealousy, greed and particularly cowardice.

In Medieval times, the liver was closely linked to courage—as well as the pale- yellow color of the Lily flower. So, if you had no blood in your liver, you had no courage, and were thus considered a “Lily Livered Coward.”

That belief held true through the mid-1800s, when liver disease (and the yellow hue it caused to the skin) helped to coin the phrase “yellow-bellied” to describe any man unwilling to fight. Similarly, when an individual was considered “spineless” they were aptly described as having a “yellow streak down their back.”

As yellow is THE most visible color from a distance, it’s a natural choice for signs, equipment and vehicles requiring your full and immediate attention (e.g. road warnings, dashboard alerts, maintenance equipment, school buses and cabs)

Since the 1890s, 75% of all pencils sold in the U.S. have been yellow. In China, yellow was associated with royalty and respect, and was also where the world’s best graphite came from. So, American manufacturers painted their pencils yellow, to let customers know their product was of a quality worthy of royalty.

In music, yellow is a major theme in some of the best-known songs of the 20th century, such as Big Yellow Taxi (Joni Mitchell), Tie a Yellow Ribbon (Tony Orlando), Yellow Submarine (The Beatles), Good-bye Yellow Brick Road (Elton John), Mellow Yellow (Donavan) and perhaps the most judicious of all, Don’t Eat the Yellow Snow (Frank Zappa).

The same goes for cinema, with titles that include She Wore A Yellow Ribbon, Yellow River, Yellow Rock, Yellow Sky and the curiously titled I Am Curious Yellow.

In comic book lore, the Green Lantern (much like Superman and Kryptonite) was fearful of and powerless against anything yellow (so, by that rationale, he’d be unable to defeat the Simpsons).

Speaking of superheroes, many of our favorites favored yellow in their outfits, including Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Wolverine, Kickass, The Flash, Iron Man, Dick Tracy and Spongebob.

Many modern-day countries incorporate yellow as a primary color in their national flag, including Belgium, Brazil, Brunei, Colombia, Romania and Sweden.

In sports, a precious few professional and college teams have drafted yellow into their uniforms (e.g. the Kansas City Chiefs, the Miami Heat, the University of Oregon, VMI and of course the Jumpin’ Jackrabbits of South Dakota State). And while in the past they were white or red, due to its high visibility, today most penalty flags have adopted the neon yellow.

And finally, we would be remiss if we didn’t include one of our favorite childhood riddles:
What’s long and yellow and seldom rings? An unlisted banana.

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